Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL playoff predictions 2019: Who'll be left standing with Stanley Cup?

NHL playoff predictions 2019: Who'll be left standing with Stanley Cup?

The best postseason tournament in all of professional sports is about to begin.

The NHL regular season is over and done with. The playoffs matchups are set.

And. Here. We. Go.

This year has the potential to be one of the wilder playoffs in recent memory. On one side of the bracket -- the East -- there's a select group of teams in a tier unto themselves. One of those teams -- the Lightning -- just tied the NHL record for most wins in a season, and posted a plus-103 goal differential. No other team finished better than plus-62.

They're your prohibitive favorites, but face arguably the toughest path to the Cup Final of any division winner.

In the Western Conference, well, it's anybody's guess who will make it out alive. Can the upstart Flames finish off an already successful season with a dream finish? Which heavyweight makes it out of the Central? Can the Sharks finally get over the hump?

Here's how I see it all playing out:

First-round predictions

Western Conference

Flames over Avalanche in six
Golden Knights over Sharks in six
Predators over Stars in five
Jets over Blues in seven

Eastern Conference

Lightning over Blue Jackets in four
Bruins over Maple Leafs in six
Capitals over Hurricanes in seven
Penguins over Islanders in six

That's right, I expect seven of the eight semifinalists from a year ago to make it back to that round once again. The only team that fails to do so? San Jose.

The Sharks are playing their worst hockey of the season. They're banged up -- who knows what to expect out of Erik Karlsson, and Timo Meier's recent injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Oh, and they can't make it out of the first few minutes of a game without being scored on.

[RELATED: Sharks feeling confident heading into series vs. Vegas]

The Knights have had San Jose's number since coming into the league. It pains me to say it, but I don't see reason why that will change.

Second-round predictions

Western Conference

Knights over Flames in seven
Predators over Jets in seven

Eastern Conference

Bruins over Lightning in seven
Penguins over Capitals in seven

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and each of these winners, minus the Knights, has had an entire year to chill.

As great as the Lightning have been -- and I mean great -- I'm going out on a limb and predicting the Bruins avenge their second-round elimination at the hands of Tampa Bay last year. I like whichever team emerges from this series to go all the way.

Same goes for the Penguins and Predators -- the vengeance part, that is.

Calgary's somewhat surprising season ends in a dramatic Game 7 loss to a team that has played in far more big games in recent memory.

Conference finals predictions

Western Conference:

Predators over Knights in six

Eastern Conference:

Bruins over Penguins in six

Vegas' luck finally runs out. Marc-Andre Fleury, still not at full strength, fails to provide the kind of staunch goaltending that proved so vital to the Golden Knights' dramatic run a year ago. Pekka Rinne, meanwhile, steals a couple games and gets some of the critics off his back. Nashville makes it back to the Cup Final for the first time since losing to the Penguins two years ago.

Pittsburgh won't meet them there, though. Worn down from an extremely physical series with the Capitals, the Penguins don't have the requisite energy to keep up with the Bruins' multi-layered attack. Boston's depth proves to be the deciding factor this late in the postseason grind.

Stanley Cup Final prediction

Bruins over Predators in six

I know, I know. Hasn't the city of Boston won enough lately?

When it rains, it pours.

In a battle of attrition, the Bruins do just enough to become champions. Nashville's defense has their hands full with Boston's top line, and the Bruins' 3rd-ranked power play vastly outperforms that of the Predators, which ranked dead last in the league during the regular season.

David Pastrnak scores the series-winner in Nashville in overtime of Game 6. The Cup eludes P.K. Subban at least one more year.

Sharks not surprised by late-game tussles in blowout win over Penguins

Sharks not surprised by late-game tussles in blowout win over Penguins

Even though the Sharks and Penguins only play each other twice a season, things tend to get a bit chippy when they meet up on the ice. The bad blood no doubt stems from when these teams faced off in the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. And boy, did the fists fly in the third period of Thursday’s game in Pittsburgh.

Fans watching at home almost missed the line brawl that took place in front of Pittsburgh’s bench during a TV timeout in the last four-plus minutes of regulation. Evander Kane, Brenden Dillon, and newly-reacquired forward Micheal Haley began pushing and shoving with members of the Penguins, and things quickly escalated. The ordeal ended with Haley coming to Dillon’s defense and shoving Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby down onto the ice. 

Haley -- known for his physicality and holding opposing players accountable for their actions -- chuckled about the scuffle afterward.

“It seems to happen whenever I’m on the ice, which is a good thing I guess,” he told the press after the game. “I have no idea actually how (it started). I saw Kane over there with one of their guys and came over, and it doesn’t take long for things to ignite. And then you’re in the box.”

Haley may not have known how the debacle he was part of got started, but Kane admitted in his postgame interview that he might have gotten the scuffle going when he went by Pittsburgh’s bench.

“I was just checking out the play they were running because I could see the board pretty clearly,” he answered honestly. “I guess they didn’t like that very much and wanted to take exception -- and I was happy to oblige.” 

Whatever the reason was for the escalated incident, Sharks’ head coach Peter DeBoer admitted afterward that he could understand where the Penguins were coming from.

“We’ve been on the other end of those,” DeBoer said. “You’re down three-or-four-nothing and there’s frustration. Those things happen.”

[RELATED: What we learned in Sharks' shutout victory over Penguins]

The fisticuffs ended with four skaters leaving the ice with game misconduct penalties and Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan getting tossed for inflammatory language. Seconds after the next faceoff, the Sharks drew a penalty and Brent Burns scored the nail-in-the-coffin power-play goal that put the finishing touches on San Jose's 4-0 victory. While the Sharks likely don’t want to be getting in full-on line brawls every evening, at least things went in their favor in the end. 

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in dominant 4-0 win vs. Penguins

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in dominant 4-0 win vs. Penguins

The Sharks were looking to rebound from a disappointing loss earlier in the week, and they did just that on Thursday evening. San Jose rallied behind Tomas Hertl’s two-goal effort and held on through some late-game fisticuffs to shut out the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0.

Here are three takeaways from Thursday’s game:

San Jose’s special teams deserved a star on the evening

Both the power play and penalty kill played a huge role in San Jose’s victory, helping to keep the momentum in their favor for the duration of the game. The Sharks started off the game getting a ton of offensive zone time and they doubled down on keeping it that way, thanks to Hertl’s two power-play markers in the first frame.

The penalty kill seemed to get more impressive as the game went on. While Evander Kane’s short-handed goal was a highlight, Martin Jones deserves a lot of credit for standing tall when the Sharks were shorthanded. His stop on Sidney Crosby at the end of the second period helped to keep Pittsburgh frustrated and off the board.

Burns and Simek were on top of their game

The duo was absolutely nails against Pittsburgh. They did a standout job breaking up plays in the Sharks’ defensive zone to help stop the Penguins from creating any momentum and capitalizing. Burns having a three-point night with a late power-play goal and two assists didn’t hurt either.

In doing good work in San Jose territory, Burns also helped set up Kane’s breakaway on the penalty kill that resulted in a short-handed goal. His mix of both offensive and defensive play on Thursday was a perfect example of why he’s in the Norris Trophy discussion.

Thornton has wheels

Jumbo Joe didn’t tally another hat trick, but boy did he put on a show by preventing a goal for the opposition. He easily had the most memorable play of the night, speeding up to prevent Evgeni Malkin from having an opportunity to score on a breakaway coming out of the penalty box.

A lot of attention is given to the milestones Thornton has been reaching, and rightfully so, but plays like that are equally impressive. Considering Thornton missed a few games at the start of the season with knee issues, being able to keep pace with a faster, younger skater like Malkin is a sight to see.